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Imagine This: You're in Hong Kong
Worn pastel multistory buildings and massive unlit neon signage loom over your head as you amble through the insanely crowded streets. The air is electric, but it’s hot and humid as hell. Checking the time, it’s 10:30am and you’re starting to get hungry. You step into a busy restaurant, the floorplan of which consists of booths and plastic tables and chairs, accompanied by handwritten posters and pictures of food plastered on the walls. Standing awkwardly at the entrance, you note that it’s equally as hot inside as it is outside. The greeter sees you and jabs her arm in the direction of a booth where someone else is already sitting and staring at their phone but you make your way through regardless. You take a seat and read over the 300-item menu encased under the glass covering of the table. Once you decide what you want, you take an additional 5-7 minutes to flag down the server who seems to be intentionally ignoring you. She finally approaches with her notepad. She takes one glance at you and she hates you already. Yes, you have indeed entered a cha chaan teng (茶餐廳), aka. a Hong Kong Cafe. 

Emerging in the 1940s/50s, cha chaan tengs were an outcome of the impact of British colonialism in Hong Kong. One of the many hybrid facets of Hong Kong’s daily life borne from its society’s varied elements, cha chaan tengs contribute to a highly precious, resilient and distinctive Hong Kong culture. Their plethora of menu items may seem to want to please all, but nothing served is arbitrary; there is a rhyme and reason for their diverse offerings, and an origin story for anything uniquely cha chaan teng. As cha chaan tengs were originally established as restaurants that cooked up Western-style food to everyday workers due to authentic Western cuisine being reserved solely for the wealthy upper class, they birthed a special mélange of dishes, including but not limited to hot cups (on saucers) of sweet milk tea, their silky contents filtered through pantyhose-like nets; macaroni in soup with ham; corned beef and fluffy scrambled egg sandwiches with the crusts cut off; fried chicken wings and French toast afternoon tea combos drizzled exclusively with golden syrup; and Hong Kong-style borscht, which bears no resemblance to actual borscht (it’s vegetable soup).
Top: Breakfast A (yau tiu, congee, soy sauce noodles, egg sandwich), Breakfast B (vermicelli with pork and preserved veg, egg, spam, bun, yuen yeung), Hong Kong club sandwich
Bottom: French toast, pork chop sandwich, milk tea
I grew up eating at cha chaan tengs, and while this cuisine’s nature of riffing and hybridity was not something I questioned, I remember not liking it very much as a kid. That might've been attributed to my poor menu choice–baked pork chop with spaghetti and a side of fries–paired with the fact that for reasons I won’t say, on an almost weekly basis for a period of time my parents and I unwillingly found ourselves at the most disgusting cha chaan teng on the entire West Coast of Canada: No. 9 Restaurant in Richmond, BC. Even mentioning it by name, my brain produces a sensory memory of the overtly sweet smell of their tomato sauce and the stench of poorly rendered semi-gelled pork fat. Appalling. 

In my notes for this newsletter I explicitly wrote, “slander No. 9 Restaurant,” so now that’s out of the way, I concretely believe nowhere else outside of Hong Kong does the cha chaan teng justice like Vancouver. While seeing ongoing migration from throughout Southern China from the late 19th century, Vancouver saw 5 very specific waves of mass migration from Hong Kong in particular following major political events from the lifting of Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act in 1947, post-riots related to the Cultural Revolution in 1967, up until the supremely grim handover of 1997 (one of my first dark news broadcast memories). Thus, it is no wonder that the Lower Mainland is host to a multitude of cha chaan tengs, many of which execute dishes on a higher par of excellence than Hong Kong, which I presume is mainly due to food and produce quality. 
Left: instant noodle with spam and sunny side up egg
Right: pineapple bun with butter
An ideal example of this superiority in execution can be seen in none other than the iconic baked pork chop with rice.
There are four general components every baked pork chop should have: breaded deep fried pork chops, white rice, a tomato or ketchup-based sauce, and a mozzarella cheese topping. Every cha chaan teng has a version of this dish, and I guarantee it will be prepared mediocrely at 90% of them. When I ate this in Hong Kong, there was the inclusion of green and red bell peppers, pineapple, a single floret of broccoli, a fried egg, and literally the barest string of cheese...wrong. 

The model baked pork chop with rice comes from the premier cha chaan teng in Vancouver, Goldstone Restaurant & Bakery–the spacious, air-conditioned, friendly neighbourhood restaurant where I can expect the comfort of Canto-only conversation with the familiar faces of the staple servers who ask me where I’ve been this last year, and tell me they never quite understood what my job was. It is here, basking in the glow of cream and burgundy and pastel pink and teal at a level that Wes Anderson could never achieve, with a gigantic clock next to the open kitchen hanging over the kingdom reminding you that you have all the time in the world, you can devour the best baked pork chop with rice you will ever eat. 

Goldstone’s baked pork chop with rice is served in a metal dish that is brought to your table fresh from the salamander, the flames of which have browned and bubbled the cheese and charred the edges of the pork chop reminiscent of a summer BBQ. On top of a bed of egg fried rice are two bone-in breaded pork chops of a very decent thickness, deep fried to crisp perfection. Once the rice is crowned with the chops, they are smothered with what I think is a full can of Campbell’s tomato soup, undiluted. The sauce may be a combination of ketchup and other ingredients, but this is my personal theory as the sauce is not too sweet. Anyways, the whole ordeal is then blessed with mozzarella cheese and broiled until gooey. The cheese might sound unappealing, but the milky denseness and elastic texture is a much needed component against the crisp, saucy and tangy. Pure perfection. 

Baked pork chop with rice is always the first meal item listed on the combo specials at Goldstone, which changes bi-weekly, save for two staple dishes. In this combo, you get one meal with a hot drink included. 
My usual choice would be a hot yuen yeung, or coffee/tea mix. Before you go and mix your home beverages in a quarantine haze and then blast me over email, yuen yeungs are made with a particular ratio of coffee and HK milk tea, which uses evaporated or condensed milk and a black tea mix. What sets Goldstone’s yuen yeung apart is its heavy lean towards coffee, making your sips a fine bitter repose to your rich baked pork chop.
Another great option to cut the richness would be a lemon iced tea, or as I lovingly call it, “the DLC” for the Cantonese 凍檸茶 (dong ling cha). Every cha chaan teng will execute this stellarly, so you definitely can’t go wrong.  Usually brewed with copious amounts of Lipton Yellow Label tea, the DLC is served in a tall glass with a straw and long-handled spoon. The correct way to drink it is to first use the spoon to muddle the slices of lemon that are tucked between the ice, releasing their fragrance and sour juice, then mix the entire drink a few times to combine. If you do not do this a) your tea will remain warm, and b) it will just taste like tea with simple syrup at the bottom. On a super hot day, this is a guaranteed delight.

By now you are probably cursing me for the length of this text and the desire I have piqued within you for some good nap-inducing cha chaan teng food during an emergency lockdown. In hopes it serves as a balm, I present to you my new favourite Youtube cook and her recipe for Hong Kong style French toast, which you could easily (?) make at home: 
Until next time,
NT
Copyright © 2020 Simmer Down, All rights reserved.


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